Among Minnesota farmers, support for Trump is bent, not broken
MORGAN, Minn. – Harlan and Pauline Hecksel sell custom skidloader attachments, but they’re not selling many right now.
Farmers with bins full of grain they can only sell at a loss don’t buy new equipment. And, to add insult to injury, the Hecksels got word from their steel broker on Monday that a shipment of forks already ordered and on the boat from China will cost an extra 25 percent. The reason? New tariffs on Chinese steel.
“It hits on both ends,” Hecksel said.
Like many farmers, the Hecksels believe President Donald Trump’s goal of renegotiating U.S. trade deals is a worthy one, and some in the agricultural economy still give him the benefit of the doubt.
But so far, Trump’s tactics have only hurt farmers, and as the weeks drag on with no sign of actual negotiation, patience is running thin.
“I think we’re running out of patience,” said Lindsay Greiner, a farmer near Iowa City, Iowa. “We want to see some action. We want some good news.”
Farmers are often the first to feel the effects of a trade conflict, but they also generally voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Based on what she heard from fellow soybean farmers and hog producers at Minnesota Farmfest, Kristin Duncanson thinks time may already have run out for the president’s trade agenda among those two agricultural sectors.
“There is plenty of discontentment, and people wanting to get tougher and louder,” Duncanson said.
On Wednesday a coalition of agricultural trade organizations, Farmers for Free Trade, announced an $800,000 ad buy with two new 30-second radio spots that will run all over Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and seven other Midwestern states. The ads are much more critical than the group’s earlier television ads, which expressed support for Trump but concern for the tariffs he placed on certain products imported from China, as well as a general tariff on imported aluminum and steel.
The new radio ads offer no praise for the president and tells him directly: “Stop the trade war.”
“Farmers are feeling the pain from President Donald Trump’s trade war,” a narrator intones in one of the ads.
The ad quotes an Indiana corn and soybean farmer who says Trump’s trade war “is not a war I signed up for.”
The second radio ad criticizes Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro for calling the amount of trade affected by tariffs a “rounding error.” “Farmers and factory workers are not a rounding error,” the ad states.
The confrontational tone of the commercials contradicts Trump’s recent tweets about how well tariffs are working to make trade with other countries more equitable for the U.S.
In the past two months, Trump has slapped tariffs on goods from China, leading to retaliatory tariffs that drove soybean prices down by $2 per bushel and hurt the market for several other farm commodities.
“That’s serious red ink,” said Lance Peterson, a soybean farmer near Fergus Falls. “It is absolutely time to get tough [with the administration].”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would provide up to $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by U.S. import tariffs and retaliatory tariffs imposed by trading partners, notably China. Farmers greeted the aid with skepticism, saying it was not enough to make a dent in the problems the trade war is causing.
“I just got back from Farmfest,” 80-year-old Ron Drude said from his corn and soybean farm in Isanti County. “Talking to people there, they feel like there isn’t anyone representing them. There are farmers who are surviving now who won’t be surviving in two or three years if this keeps up.”
And yet, some farmers across Minnesota remain hopeful that Trump can negotiate better trade deals for the country.
“I think a lot of people are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation.
Some farmers say the American policy of free trade by example — but not necessarily mutual agreement — no longer makes sense in the post-Cold War era. In repeated interviews, farmers brought up frustration over Chinese theft of American intellectual property. If their pain is short-term and results in fairer trade for the country as a whole, some said they will be satisfied.
Trump’s tactics, however, strike other farmers as too extreme, and they worry about his resolve. Several of those interviewed said the U.S. stands to lose market share to foreign competitors if trade relations with the rest of the world remain strained.
Members of the administration “are so determined to use aggressive tactics to make changes in trade, they don’t want to have a discussion,” Peterson said.
Trump “knows how to push the right buttons,” added Dave Ruhland, a retired farmer from near Eden Valley. “Whether he actually cares and he’s going to follow through with some decent policy, I don’t know.”
The Hecksels, who also raise corn and soybeans, sat in the shade of their booth at Farm Fest. Their gleaming black steel grapples, rock buckets and modified fork attachments were spread out on the grass in front of them, but there were no customers. Then one walked up.
“What are you needing?” Harlan Hecksel said gently. “Gosh dang it, you gotta be needing something!”
The man needed to know if the attachments would work on a bidirectional tractor. (They would.) He walked away.
Hecksel pointed at a steel bin in front of him and said he heard some bin-building companies will honor quotes on a new bin for only three days, because of trade war volatility in the steel market.
The Hecksels want a new trade regime, but they know it’s not going to happen quickly.
“For 30 years, the U.S. has been the sugar daddy to the world,” Hecksel said. “What he’s trying to do is right, but I wish he was doing it in four- or five-year increments.”
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432